The entrance of Centre International de Valbonne gaped in front of my eleven-year-old self—ready to swallow me whole. Students swarmed around me exchanging words I couldn’t understand. I looked down at my black high top converse and shuffled my feet.
My mom patted me on the shoulder. “It’s time for us to go, honey,” drawing me in for a hug.
As she let go, Dad wrapped me in his arms. “We’re proud of you. See you at home.” He took Mom’s hand and walked back toward the street.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Bye.” My voice barely made it to their ears. They turned and waved one last time before disappearing into the chaos.
A woman with a scowl etched on her face stood by me, list in hand. She motioned for me to walk. “Viens.”
The secondary school was unlike any I’d ever seen in the States. Beige buildings stood in a random formation around the campus. Some had battered signs with names on the front—words with strange accents and too many vowels. A few of the black windows were caged in with bars. More like a prison than a school.
The scowling-woman and I entered one of the buildings at the end of a courtyard. Blue tiled floors guided us past empty classrooms and clusters of students reuniting after summer break. The dingy walls mimicked the exterior of the building. Every window stood open. No AC. The smell of sweat settled in my nose and coated my tongue with the taste of salt.
After journeying up some stairs and down a hallway, we arrived at my classroom. The woman beckoned me inside. I tried to slip in, unnoticed, but the door opened to the front of the classroom. Every eye in the room latched onto me. I slid into a vacant desk, holding my hands in my lap to hide their shaking. The students chatted mostly in French, some Arabic and German. I studied my hands.
The sticky stench of body odor peaked as the teacher marched into the classroom. He stood tall, gray hair encircling his head, pit stains on his short-sleeved button up. He said a few words I couldn’t understand. The students laughed. Was I supposed to laugh? My gut constricted as if wrung by a giant’s hand.
For many people in America, that first day of school never ends. They sit trembling, looking for a way out. Fear escalates as people seem to stand against their race, occupation, or religion. Those around them don’t make sense—they speak what sounds like another language. They find themselves surrounded by strange classmates in a foreign country, isolated and forgotten.
In France, I lived as an outsider, one of the few Americans in an international school. I tasted the fear that most of us can relate to—the feeling that sits in your stomach and rots, crushing your heart to pieces and rattling your bones apart. It’s the fear of rejection, the fear of attack, the fear of people. While I cannot pretend to understand the exact situation of every minority group in our country, I know fear. The fear I experienced as a sixth grader helps me empathize with the millions who walk our streets with the same anxiety in their hearts. All of us can resonate with fear. But fear comes with choice. We can either embrace fear and fight, or we can overcome fear with compassion.
Back in that French classroom, my teacher pulled out a piece of paper and called names one by one, stopping to ask questions of each student. So much French. I could count to ten, say hello, but I couldn’t decipher a single word. Tears threatened to spill down my cheeks.
I looked up, ready to respond. Another girl shot her hand up. The two talked for a moment or two. The teacher shook his head.
I raised my hand. He asked me a question—or maybe he told me something. I had no clue. My stomach lurched. I could feel the wetness in my eyes. For a moment, I debated sprinting out the door, but my shaking body would not comply.
In my panic, I failed to notice the teacher approach my desk and kneel to make eye contact with me.
“Do you speak English?”
Those four words shattered my fear into a thousand pieces. The turbulent waters in my stomach calmed and my eyes dried. At the peak of my anxiety, my teacher came to me and spoke words I understood. He broke through the wall of isolation. The relief stilled my shaking hands.
Two thousand years ago, another fearful girl experienced a similar breakthrough. The virgin mother lived as an outcast from all society to the point that she had to give birth among animals. As she knelt beside a feeding trough, she heard the cries of God in flesh. In her isolation, God spoke—not with words of power, but with the frail voice of a newborn.
God broke through the wall of isolation on the first Christmas Day. He saw humanity—cut off because of sin and devoid of hope. And instead of turning away from a fearful people, he stooped down to earth in a way we could wrap our minds around. From the moment of his birth, the dividing wall began to crumble. Christmas reminds us that God tore down every barrier that barred us from him. He crossed the vastness of heaven and the canyons carved by sin to be with us. He stooped down and asked, “Can I speak your language?”
Cover image by John Towner.